Dr. Emily Weiss counters some of the most often-heard arguments for not waiving RTO fees.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post focused on the tragic consequences that a black-and-white policy regarding Return to Owner fees can have on lost pets and the people who have lost them. The heartbreak of people and pets simply because they are unable to raise the funds to cover RTO fees that can be as high as several hundred dollars…
I asked you all for your thoughts about eliminating the fees. And I learned that while many of you agreed, some did not. I thought it was important to pull the strings on some of these arguments.
For example, there were a few folks who thought it irresponsible to waive fees for repeat RTOs—with judgment reserved for those people who have pets who have gotten lost more than once. One commenter stated, “Philosophically speaking, are we really serving the best interest of the pet when we return the animal 2, 3, 4 times, and the owner has racked up hundreds in unpaid fees as a result of multiple day stays and multiple trips?” I would say no, we are not—but the answer then would not be to not help the person reclaim their pet, but to learn more about the reason the pet became lost in the first place, and help enable that person to resolve that challenge (be it a broken fence, improper collar or leash etc.). If our mission is aimed at in some way making things better for dogs and cats, I would argue that we can only make systemic change toward that goal if we engage those who care for their pets with the respect, tools and support to improve the care for their pets.
Another group of folks argued that the reclaim fees are in place to recoup costs invested into the pet while in their care, and thus must be collected to stay afloat. I am not sure I agree with that algebra. If Dog X enters the shelter and his owner finds him at your shelter on Day 1 (or even Day 3, as most dogs are reclaimed between Day 1 and 3), I would argue that it is much less expensive than Dog Y, whose owner cannot afford to reclaim him and who will be transitioned into your general population... Vaccines cost no more than $5-$10 per animal at the top end, and daily cost of care is estimated to be around $10/animal. (As for the example of a dog or cat who comes in need of medical care—that is a wash because the support would occur whether or not he was reclaimed.) When we add in the costs of transitioning that dog or cat into a new home, one might argue there is a savings to the shelter when fees are waived for those who are in need.
There were also some folks who were frustrated because they would like to waive fees for those in need, but their municipality does not allow for it—most often because of the perceived revenue generated. There are certainly options here, both short- and long-term. In the short term, a special donor fund to cover those perceived costs for those in need could be set up—with an aim to collect data and stories about the impact that fund produces. That data can then be shared with commissions and councils to help change those policies overtime.
Then there were those who noted that if someone cannot pay the fees to reclaim their pet, how can they care for their pet on a day-to-day basis? There were a couple really nice comments noting that having financial stability does not mean someone cares better for the pet (there are many with funds who choose not to spend those funds on the pet – and many with funds who neglect and abuse). There is research supporting that those with low incomes are just as, if not more, attached to their pets. We are of the belief that pets and the people who want to do right by them belong together—and a helping hand can often be the most humane thing for human and dog or cat alike.
Now, even if you disagree, you would be wrong to think that keeping that pet means that the person will not obtain another pet. Really, restricting that access to the pet by not waiving fees results in one homeless pet AND a person who will not seek you when help is needed in the future—which sure seems counter to where we want to go.
I think I am just suggesting taking a step back from the procedure to examine if this policy truly achieves the goal you are aiming for. Does charging an RTO fee help to ensure that the ultimate goals of ending homelessness, creating a more humane community and decreasing suffering are met?
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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